NO HARMFUL PRACTICE TO CHILDREN UNDER THE GUISE OF TRADITION

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By Cuma Pantshwa 

  • Children in KwaMhlanga, Mpumalanga, have called on leaders, law enforcement, and government to end harmful practices that violate their rights during the International Children’s Day commemoration.
  • The dialogue highlighted global and local efforts to eliminate harmful practices such as FGM and child marriage, aligning with the African Union’s commitment to ending these practices by 2030.
  • Stakeholders, including traditional leaders and various government departments, engaged in discussions on safeguarding children’s rights while respecting cultural traditions.

Children in KwaMhlanga, Mpumalanga, called on leaders, law enforcement, and the government to end harmful practices that violate their rights. This dialogue took place at the commemoration of International Children’s Day.

International Children’s Day, under the theme “Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children: Progress on Policy and Practice,” was attended by various stakeholders, including over 60 teenage children, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Parliament, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJ & CD), the South African Police Services (SAPS), the Department of Social Development (DSD), and the House of Traditional and Khoisan Leaders.

In 2019, the African Union adopted a declaration on “Ending Harmful Practices,” which includes a commitment to end FGM (female genital mutilation), child marriage, and other harmful practices by 2030, in line with Sustainable Development Goals. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is an international human rights instrument intended to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms on the African continent. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, under the chapter titled “Protection Against Harmful Social and Cultural Practices,” calls on all state members to take appropriate measures to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices affecting the welfare, dignity, normal growth, and development of the child, particularly those prejudicial to the health or life of the child and those discriminatory to the child on the grounds of sex or other status. Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited, and effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage at eighteen years and make registration of all marriages in an official registry compulsory.

Speaking out about various issues affecting them, one of the attendees, a 16-year-old girl from Bushbuck Ridge, said she was there to present a talk on ending the traditional practice of “ukoma” (initiation of girls). “These practices affect children. I was nine years old and in Grade 4 when I was taken to initiation school. We were told that we were being trained to be women – that we could be mature and developed. They woke us up very early and told us to fetch wood in the forest, always reminding us that we were being trained to be grown women who would one day look after our own families when we finished initiation,” she shared. This young girl dreams of becoming a paediatrician one day and, as she continued to relay her initiation experience, explained the sore point of missing out on school during that time. Her hope today is that children are more protected and that these traditional practices have laws to guide them.

One of her peers, 17-year-old Thembela Nkosi, spoke about the importance of law enforcement personnel ensuring no harmful practices involving children occur regarding cultural practices in the area. He shared, “Usually boys are taken to initiation school by force; it’s also sometimes peer pressure because some relatives make one feel like they are not man enough. But ultimately, we need law enforcement to engage with us and arrest whoever is harming children.” He further encouraged stakeholders to host more informative sessions with children so they can be educated about harmful practices and gain knowledge on how to report any violent crimes.

As the programme of the day commenced, the Director of Child Advocacy at the Department of Social Development, David Chabalala, aptly opened his speech with the popular traditional song, “ZIZOJIKA IZINTO… THULA MNTWANAMI” (Things Will Change… Hush My Child). While celebrating Children’s Day, he emphasised the importance of spotlighting those who conduct traditional practices that ultimately harm and sometimes kill children under the guise of tradition and culture, such as child marriages (ukuthwala) and initiations.

The Department of Social Development strengthens advocacy on a number of children’s issues and ensures that children’s interests are protected. David Chabalala of DSD explained the background and purpose of the day, saying, “As a member state of the African Union, we are encouraged to look at policy implementation regarding cultural practices, especially those that are harmful to children’s lives. In 2017, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities spotlighted these traditional practices, so we are here to follow up on the status of policy implementation and recommendations made. More importantly, we aim to ensure that these cultural practices do not harm or violate the rights of children.”

South Africa is required by the Constitution’s section 7(2) to defend, uphold, and fulfil the rights of children. This emphasises that the state has a constitutional duty to control initiations and safeguard children from potentially life-threatening circumstances. “In the midst of good practices, we also need to be aware of harmful practices and look for solutions from different stakeholders. We also want to strengthen the systems that are already in place. We are Africans, we are proud of our cultures; that is the purpose of these dialogues,” expressed Mr Chabalala.

The present South African Constitution guarantees people rights that enable them to carry out their cultural practices. It challenges South African citizens to exercise their rights according to the values entrenched within it. The Department of Justice, Health, and Education committed to joining hands with the children and provided valuable information on the systems in place to ensure their protection. Kgoshi Mathupa Mokoena of the Traditional Leaders supported the views tabled and told the children in the room that no tradition supports child marriages. He explained that “ukuthwala” should involve two consenting adults who want to get married and that no culture supports child marriages. He encouraged the teens to focus on education and look after themselves.

The dialogue put children at the centre to promote children’s rights to participation. Discussions focused on child abuse, neglect, and exploitation, and capacitated children on how to report child abuse-related cases and harmful cultural practices.

 

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